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Embrace Your Dark Side: What Is Shadow Work

Understanding your shadow rather than repressing it is psychologists’ answer to reducing stress and low esteem.

Two heads one lighter and one darker as a shadow
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK/MELITAS

We all have a side to us we wouldn’t dare show the world. Perhaps you’re ashamed of that part, or maybe it harbours emotions you’re scared of revealing. Keeping certain elements of ourselves away from the public eye is the social norm we’ve always followed. However, psychologists today claim that the shadow can be significant in healing trauma.

Understanding our darker side

Developed during early childhood, a dark version of ourselves, known as the shadow builds in our subconscious. The shadow is essentially a series of repressed memories or emotions that help make you a more fitting member of society. The best visual would be to picture all those times you wanted to simply fit in. Be it school, work or family events, there is always another person you feel you have to be to get a seat at the “cool kids table”. Psychotherapist Charlotte Kirsten states:

[your shadow self] can harbor everything from intense embarrassment to bitter sadness to profound rage; the full spectrum of emotions,”

Tracy Anne Duncan, Mic

While most people have probably spent a lifetime perfecting their public persona, it comes with a price. In an article with Mental Well-Being, Jennifer Sweeton discusses how repressions can act as a form of self-harm. “People have issues with self-identity and talking about what’s important to them and what they value,” she says. “That can lead them to the wrong careers or relationships, but they have a hard time seeing why.” Even something like an embarrassing event that makes you cringe now and then can result in stress, anxiety, low self-esteem and even addiction.

Hence, came the treatment to embrace rather than repress aspects of ourselves, otherwise known as ‘shadow work’. Introduced by Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, shadow work brought ideas of self-acceptance that allowed hidden trauma or emotions to become a conscious part of thinking. It calls for curating your emotions to a compassionate front, and treating them as part of your identity rather than forcing them away. Moreover, shadow work aims to allow you to explore who you are rather than have others tell you so.

Practising Shadow work

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To begin your shadow work journey is not simple. It calls for visiting those parts of your subconscious that may scale from humiliating to downright traumatizing.

The intention of shadow work is to find a way to get right with the parts of you that you think are flaws, by trying to uncover the “why” behind them. That’s no small task.

Tracy Anne Duncan, Mic

Letting yourself heal is probably the hardest part. Suddenly refraining from judging your actions can be jarring when you are conditioned to think a certain way all your life. Therefore, practising shadow work would be a great healing process as it stimulates a more altruistic mindset towards yourself and others.

While more serious trauma can be discussed more in-depth with a professional, starting small by self-introspection is also helpful. Essentially, it would be best to recognize what your shadow is. Journaling or meditation can be a great exercise, especially upon asking yourself questions like:

  • Who are you holding resentments for and why?
  • What are some traumatising or shameful memories?
  • What are some of your traits that make you feel guilty?
  • What are my desires and how important are they to me?
  • Have I allowed myself to be vulnerable?

Sweeton also provides five shadow exercises that can help build on shadow work, such as evaluations, communicating with someone or finding value in what you understand about your shadow. However, Kirsten emphasizes that shadow work can only be effective if you know your intentions.

What do you gain?

If you’re using it to highlight all your flaws and ‘prove’ just how ‘terrible’ or ‘unworthy’ you are, this is no longer shadow work. This is artificially creating evidence to further wound your psyche.” Basically, shadow work should be a tool, not a weapon.

Tracy Anne Duncan, Mic

Those who wish to implement shadow work into their lives must understand that the duality of what is good and bad is erased. Thus, leaving you with your roots and the question of why.

Thus, embracing the idea of an imperfect being is vital. Giving value to your traits allows you to slowly peel back the layers without the judgement of the outside world. Akua Boateng, through clients, has observed a change in those who tap into their subconscious despite how messy it can be. “You can see how your thoughts and feelings influence your behaviour and create your reality. You empower yourself as you take responsibility for your projections”.

With the world’s biggest threat of unpredictability, what shadow work gives us is a sense of trust in ourselves. By understanding what makes us feel, act or think the way we do, we pave a path to a more open attitude toward the future.

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